Professor McCarter had been caught off guard by the native’s sudden disappearance into the bush. He rushed to catch up, reaching the others just as they arrived at the outskirts of the native encampment.
The village itself sat beside the long curve of a broad stream, one wide enough to part the jungle and let the sun shine down over its waters. McCarter guessed the location to be a deliberate one. Not only did it put the Chollokwan in close proximity to a source of freshwater and fish, but it protected them from attack on two-thirds of their perimeter. The remaining section was guarded by sentries, groups of them on the forest floor and others perched in the trees. Seeing this, McCarter began to wonder if the Chollokwan had indeed stood guard on the ramparts at the Wall of Skulls.
Between the sentries burned a long line of small fires, fifty or more spaced evenly in a long, curving arc that stretched to the water’s edge on both sides of the village, a barrier on the land, forming the front line of defense.
The fires burned hot and filled the air with white smoke and the fine ash that they’d seen on the leaves some distance away. Stacks of wood lay behind them, which the younger members of the tribe were continuously adding to.
The Chollokwan sentries acknowledged Putock as he approached and then sprang to their feet at the sight of the Westerners. Putock waved them back, said a few words and then the group of foreigners passed by, walking between the fires and into the village.
McCarter strained to take it all in. The land itself was almost bare, stripped of anything that could be used as fuel for the fires. Only the larger trees remained. It was more of a camp than a village, the only structures being rickety shelters of animal skins and bundled wood. But then, the Chollokwan were nomads and when the time came, they would tear the place down and disappear, carrying their shelters away with them. McCarter wondered how long they would stay. Until the rains came, he guessed, or until the first wave of rains passed.
As they followed Putock, they passed additional blazes. Around these fires lay the wounded and the dying, and around those victims gathered loved ones who mourned them.
A pair of distraught women hovered over a recent, bloodied arrival, wailing in anguish at the sight. Other men with similar gashes were tended by more stoic guardians—mothers, sisters and wives long since cried out.
All of the victims had been slashed and torn open, skin and muscle cut cleanly to the bone, or torn away in great chunks. Smaller wounds had been cauterized with the scalding heat of stone tools from the fires, while larger injuries were covered with dressings of mud and leaves. McCarter counted twenty badly wounded men and a dozen more that must be dead already. He wondered how many hadn’t come home from their sorties, how many had been taken by the Zipacna and hung in distant trees.
Beside one of the dying, a woman and an older child sobbed. Not far from them, a three-year-old played. Too young to understand, the little boy danced around, chirping like a small bird, throwing a stone at the fire. It reminded McCarter of his wife’s funeral and their grandchild dressed for church, who just wanted to run and laugh. As he thought about the universality of life and death, it grieved him to consider the pain his group had helped cause.
Putock led them past the wounded and brought the foreigners to the largest blaze yet, a huge bonfire near the center of the village, beside which sat a mountainous pile of wood.
The envoys from the NRI stood beside it, enduring waves of heat and murmurs and stares from the Chollokwan crowd. As the number of onlookers grew, they pressed closer together, and McCarter soon felt claustrophobic, encircled by a human wall.
After several minutes a stir went through the crowd, and the Chollokwan bystanders parted. The council of elders had arrived, as promised.
The council numbered five, but of primary importance was the leader, a tiny man, slight of build to begin with and shrunken further with his great age. He moved with a grace born of caution and a frame twisted and bent like an ancient tree. Scaly, mottled skin covered his hands and face, and his eyes lay half-hidden behind folds of wrinkled flesh. He was called the Ualon, the Old One: the Great Father and leader of the tribe. The Chollokwan honored this frail man above all others. His decision would bind them.
Before he would talk, the Old One inspected his guests. He stepped close to them, touching their faces in spots and some of their hands, judging them against a lifetime’s priceless knowledge.
He looked at the bandage around Danielle’s leg, touched the wound on McCarter’s shoulder, the bloody gash etched on Hawker’s cheek. “Warriors,” he said in the Chollokwan language.
The Old One and his fellow council members took a position across from them. Both groups sat down and the crowd closed ranks around them.
A cracking whisper came from the ancient man’s throat, his words forming slowly in the strangely labored Chollokwan tongue.
Devers translated. “He says that the seers have foretold the arrival of the ‘West Men’ and that there would be a struggle between the ancient and the new. He says his father told him this when he was a boy, and now it has come to pass.”
Devers had used the term “West Men,” but McCarter suspected it was one of his own invention, as there was likely no English translation for the Chollokwan word that described outsiders. He was patently aware that to the Chollokwan the NRI team had in fact come from the East, from Manaus, downriver.
He looked at Danielle. She nodded.
“Tell him we’ve not come here to struggle against them,” McCarter began. “Tell him we’ve come here to ask for their help and …” McCarter bobbed his head slightly, “to return what was stolen from them, probably in the time of his father.”
“You’ll have to show him the crystals,” Devers said. “The warriors didn’t seem to understand me, and I think they may have a proper term instead of a description.”
Devers turned to speak and Danielle pulled out the box she had reacquired from Kaufman before his demise. From it she produced the Martin’s crystals. She handed them to McCarter as a murmur of surprise surged through the crowd.
The Old One leaned closer to inspect the crystals. “Ta anik Zipacna,” he said, which Devers translated as: The eyes of Zipacna.
McCarter reeled from the statement. It told him he was right, these simple nomads were the descendants of the Maya.
“Zipacna are the Stealers of Life,” the Old One explained. “They are the Takers of Men; the Plague, the Zipacna are the Many Deaths Who Walk the Night. All these names are for the Zipacna.”
No further explanation was needed.
The Old One raised his hands outward to indicate the entire tribe. “The People come to watch for the Zipacna, to see if they rise from the pit—from the depths of the stone mount. It has been more than the time of many great fathers since they were seen. Yes, always they have slept until now. Until the West Men set them free. Because of this, the Great Sky Heart is angry, the rains will not fall.”
McCarter addressed the Old One directly. “The rains would kill the Zipacna,” he said. “If the Black Rain fell it would save the People.”
Now the Old One stared at McCarter, perhaps reeling in the same way McCarter had only moments before. His eyes were open wide, their luminescent brilliance no longer hidden by the curtains of skin. McCarter had used the words “Black Rain” because they were an integral part of the ancient legend—what he didn’t know was that the Chollokwan used the same words to describe the first heavy rain of the season.
Here they would wait, until the falling of the Black Rain. The heavy rains would tell them it was safe to leave the clearing and the stone temple behind. In most years there was so much rain, even in the dry season, that they had to arbitrarily choose which particular storm would be counted as the Black Rain, but in certain years, especially El Niño years like this one, the choice would be clear.
McCarter could see the essence of this on the Old One’s face and he felt an opening. He watched as the frail body turned and conferred with his council before speaking again.
“He wants to know what kind of help we request,” Devers said. “And what kind of help we believe they could give us.”
“Tell him we want to leave the jungle. We were asked to leave before and now we will, but we need their help to make the journey. We offer the crystals, the Eyes of Zipacna in exchange for this help.” McCarter held up the box again. “Tell him we wish to return to our homes, to a place beneath our own sky.”
The other elders whispered among themselves but the Old One did not consult them. He looked at McCarter and spoke, his words flowing through Devers.
“Many who journey do not return to their homes.” He pointed to the river. “The water flows strongly.” He made a fist. “The current takes men away. To return home one must fight against the power of the stream. For some this is too much. For you,” he said, waving a hand over the NRI group, “it will be too much, it seems.”
“But the current flows to our home; the river will take us.” McCarter replied this way, though he guessed that the statement had not been meant literally. “It was the journey to this place that was most difficult for us.”
“Then you must go,” the Old One said. “With or without help, you must leave.”
As the Old One spoke, McCarter’s heart sank. He had assumed that the crystals held a high place in the Chollokwan beliefs, and from the way the elders stared at them, he believed he was right. But it seemed practicality forbade them from rendering assistance. As McCarter guessed, the able-bodied would not be wasted on escort duty for strangers and foreigners, and that, McCarter feared, meant doom for their small and dwindling party.
As McCarter fell into silence, Hawker whispered to Danielle, “This isn’t exactly going well.”
She leaned over to McCarter. “Don’t give up,” she said, quietly. “We’ll never get another chance at this.”
“I don’t know what else to say,” McCarter replied.
“Offer them guns,” she said. “We’ll give them rifles and bullets if they’ll help us.”
McCarter shook his head. “What good would that do? It would just be a trick.”
“We’ll teach them how to use them.”
“No,” he said. “It’s beads for Manhattan all over again.”
Before Danielle could say anything more, the Old One spoke. “The time for talking is over,” Devers explained.
“Professor,” Danielle urged.
McCarter’s mind was spinning.
“We cannot help you,” the Old One added.
Danielle nudged him. “Say something,” she pleaded.
He couldn’t think of anything. And the Old One stood and turned to go.
“Wait,” she shouted. She stood. A wave of shock ran through the Chollokwan gathering.
“Oh no,” McCarter said. He’d warned Danielle not to speak, explained to her that the Chollokwan would take it as an insult if she addressed them directly, that her presence would seem odd to begin with and counterproductive if she projected herself as their leader. She’d pretty much scoffed at that when he’d explained it the first time, but so far at least she’d kept to the plan. Now, he guessed, that plan was going off the rails.
For Danielle it was an innate reaction. And even as accusing glances flew her way, she found herself speaking boldly. “We will come here,” she said, launching into a new offer, one she hadn’t discussed with anyone. “We will come here and help the People fight.” She turned to Devers. “Tell him we’ve been fighting the Zipacna as well, we’ve killed several of them already. We can join forces with the tribe, if they’ll let us.
“Quickly,” she said.
Looking surprised, but no doubt realizing that the village with a hundred warriors would be far safer than the desolate clearing at this point, Devers stood and voiced her new offer. “We will join our small tribe to yours. We have weapons of great power.” He pointed to the rifles. “And warriors, if only a few.” He pointed to Danielle, McCarter and Hawker, all of whom were now standing. “Our help would be of great value to the People. It would be of great help against the Zipacna.”
Across the fire from them, the wizened old man chewed on the edge of his lip, his eyes going from Devers to McCarter to Danielle. He remained silent, apparently considering the offer, gazing at Danielle for a long moment before speaking. “The tribe of the West Men have fought the Zipacna, but it also fights with itself,” he said, finally. He pointed to Hawker. “White Faces bring death to their own in the night.”
Apparently they’d been watching the clearing, with mixed results. Try as she might, Danielle could think of no way to explain the strife and combat between her people and Kaufman’s, fighting that must have appeared to the Chollokwan as a civil war.
The Old One continued. “These ways cannot help the People. For one part to attack the other brings more anger to the Sky Heart.”
“But we can help you,” she insisted.
For a prolonged moment, Danielle watched the reflection of the flames dance in his eyes. She guessed at the old man’s thoughts. A great internal struggle, weighing the benefits of such an alliance with what she assumed would be resounding spiritual ramifications. She didn’t know these people the way McCarter and Devers did, but she could read the conflict on the Old One’s face.
“The Sky Heart is angry,” he said, still gazing at the fire. “He is angry with those who have stood upon the poisoned ground and opened the mountain. He is angry, because the maw of the great pit gazes at him, day and night. And for this he withholds the rain. To please the Sky Heart, the tribe of the West Men must seal the pit. Close the Mountain and the Black Rain will fall once again.”
As Devers spoke the words in English, Danielle’s heart sank. “We can’t,” she mumbled. “The stone’s been destroyed.”
Devers translated her words—though she hadn’t specifically intended that he do so—and a wave of fear swept through the Chollokwan crowd.
This news was the most grievous yet.
The Old One turned to his fellow council members, and now they spoke rapidly, words of fear and blame and panic, if she guessed right. They shook their heads and wrinkled their brows, their statements too compressed and overlapping for Devers to follow.
Finally, the Old One cut off the discussion. His voice was abrupt. “If the pit cannot be sealed, the Zipacna will return, they will nest until the rains depart. They will come forth again and the plague will have no end.”
Danielle tried to suggest an alternative but their host had grown too angry to listen, shouting her down with a voice unbelievably strong for such a frail man.
He turned to go, and Danielle felt sick. Without the rains to drive the Zipacna back underground, they would continue to clear the jungle of life. Many Chollokwan would surely die, perhaps all of them. And the strangers whose help he’d just refused would fare no better. She could not accept this end. She could not believe they would turn down help under such horrendous circumstances.
“You can’t fight them alone,” she shouted, grabbing Devers by the arm and chasing after the departing elders.
It was a dangerous move. One of the warriors blocked her and pushed her back, while another stepped closer with an axe in hand. Hawker jumped in between, shoving the guard backward and bringing his rifle up—and the powder keg needed only a spark for the bloodbath to begin.
With all the strength she had, Danielle turned her eyes away, lowering them meekly, bowing her head subserviently and focusing on the ground, her hands shaking uncontrollably as the seconds passed.
Slowly the tension faded, but by now the Old One was gone, having passed beyond reach. There would be no more talk, no more speech for the tribe of the West Men.
McCarter put a hand on her shoulder. As she looked into his eyes, she sensed the same frustration; like her, his heart was sick with thoughts of failure, dizzy with the impact of what had just occurred. He tried to smile, but it was a sad look and she did not respond in kind.
Beside them Putock shouted a command and the Chollokwan crowd parted to let the group out. Devers went first, but both McCarter and Danielle hesitated and Hawker would not leave their side.
Finally, Hawker spoke. “Come on,” he said. “You did what you could. We’ll have to find another way.”
Danielle took a deep breath and stepped forward. She turned to see McCarter hesitating. He still held the case with the Martin’s crystals in it. He crouched and placed the box on a flat stone beside the fire: the Eyes of Zipacna had found their way home.